Japanese girls go crazy for foreign designer goods

by AFP/Francoise Kadri, Dec 23, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

Erina Kobayashi has been waiting since the previous night for a Tokyo warehouse packed with nearly new designer goods to open.

The 23-year-old Japanese clerk already owns six or seven Vuitton handbags but is so determined to buy another she camped out overnight in a cardboard box to ensure she was first in line.

Japan's economy might be slumping but the flood of young women to this sale, organised a few weeks before end of the year festivities, demonstrates their insurmountable passion for foreign-brand handbags, wallets and other luxury goods.

At exactly 9:30 am the doors of the warehouse open and the race begins.

A surge of young women, Erina leading the way, rush inside and gather as many trendy handbags as they can out of a huge mountain of Vuitton, Chanel, Coach or Guccis.

This warehouse event is organised twice a year by a group of 70 pawn shop owners in Tokyo to sell the authentic goods they have bought at a quarter or even a third of the original price.

"Beforehand items offered for sale, largely clothes or jewellery, had been pawned by men in return for credit," said Sasao Makoto, an official from the sale.

"But now we have lots of Vuitton or Chanel bags pawned by young women because they have received too many of the same version as presents or they have gone out of fashion," Makoto said.

In four days, the consortium of pawn shops will between six and seven thousand handbags out of 100.000 items generating a total turnover of between 800 million and one billion yen (6.6 million to 8.3 million dollars).

"It is my third trip here, I am looking for a particular Vuitton bag, varnished and brilliant," gushed Erina. "I am a bit of a collector," she admitted.

Erina is the perfect target customer for big fashion labels: she is single, lives with her parents and earns 170,000 yen per month. She uses half of it to fund her taste for expensive accessories.

Tadako Mizuguchi, 58-years old, has been queuing since six in the morning to enter the warehouse in the hope of finding a Rolex watch.

"I go to Las Vegas for some fun four times a year with my 29-year-old daughter who is married and also loves designer labels," she said.

"The last time we went was in June when the yen was quite strong so we bought a Hermes handbag in our hotel," she boasted.

Mizoguchi's remark fits a theory held by Yoko Kawashima, a director of marketing research at Itochu Fashion System.

"The 25 and 30 year-olds spawned from Japan's second baby-boom often buy pricey items under the influence of their mother, typically aged 50 to 55, who were children of the original baby boom era (after World War II)," she said.

The other two generations who go crazy for brands are the 18-24 year-olds, and the reckless 30-35 year old "banana generation" who live one day to the next like the popular author Banana Yoshimoto, according to Kawashima.

"Since marriages in Japan started happening later and later the banana generation has not left their parents' home. These women have a good salary and a lot of disposable income with no rent and no food bills," she said.

Since many have money, there is a kind of general attraction to luxurious handbags "not limited to the bourgeois middle-classes like in France."

These women want to be different from other girls, according to Toshi Marks, author of the book "Japanese women who do not have confidence buy brand goods."

"But how can you be different, unless you have a different temper you cannot, so the only way is to buy foreign brand goods," said Marks, who is also a professor of multi-cultural studies at Shumei University.

Marks, the ex-wife of Lord Marks from Britain's famous retail chain Marks and Spencer spends her life in London and Tokyo, publishes two books a year about Japanese society and makes frequent appearances on television programmes. For her, Japan's lust for luxury goods stems from the education system which does not teach people to think for themselves.

"Japanese pupils are forced to memorize everything the teachers say," Marks said.

Under the surface, people are also still concious of the defeat they suffered in the second world war, she said. "Japanese feel in many points that they are inferior to Western countries and that foreign goods are superior to Japanese goods". In addition, Japan is quite nostalgic for the exuberant 1980s before the speculative bubble economy burst, the author said.

"With luxury goods, they want to cling to some kind of bubble signs, to show they can buy ... The tradition of modesty is not a virtue anymore, showing off is a very good thing."

Japan's economic crisis over the past 12 years has created another phenomenon, according to Kawashima: a difference between social classes and a sophistication in taste.

"A division has appeared between those who can afford to buy Bulgari or Judith Leiber jewel-bags -- priced from around 300,000 yen a piece -- (and those who can't) and this gap will widen," she predicted.

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